Estimating time of death – pasta mortis and zebra mortis

Extract from The Werewolf of Wottenham Wood

I put on some vinyl gloves and made a closer examination of the body. It had been a frenzied attack with blood, offal and tissue fragments spread for several feet around the poor wretch. The body was cold to the touch, with rigor mortis in the remaining arm, and livor mortis in the back, buttocks and back of the thighs.

Rigor mortis is a well-known phenomenon by which the muscles of the recently deceased become stiffened. This process begins a few hours after death, is maximal at around twelve hours, and then dissipates until, after a day or so the muscles become flaccid.

Most people however are less familiar with the phenomenon of pasta mortis. After death, blood pools in the internal organs, draining away from the skin, leaving it pale and clammy like a handful of spaghetti. The presence of pasta mortis is diagnostic of death and can be confirmed by throwing the deceased against a wall and seeing if they stick (Al-Dente’s sign).

If you have been unfortunate enough to be on a medical ward when resuscitation is being attempted, you may hear the words, “stand clear,” followed by a loud thud. This is the medical team checking for pasta mortis.

A related phenomenon occurs a few hours later. As the blood leeches back out of the internal organs, it can form stripes in the skin. This is known as zebra mortis and is a transient phenomenon, best seen if the person has died while standing on their head; but, I digress.

“Death has occurred in the last twenty four hours,” I said. “Rigor mortis is quite pronounced, so I suspect between eight and sixteen hours. There have been some scavengers nibbling at the body, and there are flies buzzing about, but no maggots as yet. If it were Summer, he would be crawling by now. For a more accurate estimate, I would need to check his liver temperature.”


About Dr Rupert Harker

I am the author of the Urban-Smith mysteries and Intelligent Design series of books.
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One Response to Estimating time of death – pasta mortis and zebra mortis

  1. Pingback: More thank you’s and a big favour to ask. | Paranorensics – where forensics goes bump in the night

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